The body as canvas

 


1. Body Map

2. Modern modification

3. Tattoo. Pierce. How come?

4. Hepatitis C

5. To regulate?

The tattoo 'reflects an aspect of who I am, represents my inner personality, my interests, life goals, life philosophy.'

Nancy Jasso removes a tattoo from a patient's arm with a laser, about 2001, at a laser tattoo-removal project of the San Fernando (California) Valley Violence Prevention Coalition. Photo: National Library of Medicine

Putting your metal where your mouth is: A Why Filer, digitally pierced.

But when does body modification become self-mutilation?


photograph of an arm with flower tattoosA body of expression
Why do people decorate their bodies, and why is bod-mod so popular now? Christina Frederick-Recascino, associate professor of psychology and human factors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida has studied the motivations and personalities of college-age people with tattoos or pierces (see "Psychological and Motivational..." in the bibliography).

Any time you see a fad or a craze, peer pressure seems a possible motivation, but Frederick-Recascino heard another explanation from her modified subjects. "The majority said they were not getting tattoos and pierces from peer pressure... they were choosing it as a way to reflect their identity." In other words, she was told that the content of the tattoo "reflects an aspect of who I am, represents my inner personality, my interests, life goals, life philosophy."

While the mere presence of a tattoo once signified membership in the culture of sailors, Frederick-Recascino says content now matters. "They really put thought into what they wanted to put on their body."

If tattoos and pierces are self-expression, rather than rebellion, it's not surprising that Frederick-Recascino found them to be largely unassociated with personality disorders. "Our study got a lot of attention," she says, "because it was one of the first studies that did not find significant, if any psychopathology." Previous studies, she adds, had found psychological problems and criminal behavior to be "very prevalent, but ours was a general sample of college-age tattooed or pierced people, and we found none of that; it was quite interesting."

Drawbacks of skin-drawing?
Stephen Franzoi, a social psychologist who studies physical attractiveness and body esteem at Marquette University, agrees that young adults now view bod-mod as a mainstream form of self-expression. But savor the paradox: "Interestingly enough," he points out, "the desire to express your own unique qualities, is, in one sense, an act of conformity. It's a social norm that an increasing number of young adults are conforming to."

Man with tattooed arm and doctor in lab coat using machine. The paradox of rebelling-while-conforming is a hoary notion, he adds, that also surfaced in the long-haired 1960s.

But long hair can be sheared. Tattoos and pierces are, if not permanent, certainly harder to undo. Could today's flights of self-expression become an albatross in tomorrow's job-market? Perhaps, Franzoi warns. "The people who are doing this are looking at the short-term benefit in terms of self-expression... but they aren't taking into consideration some of the long-term negative consequences.... There is a stigma in mainstream culture against elaborate tattoos, and there will be discrimination in job hiring. It's the same with body pierces, if they are very noticeable and elaborate, people might not be hired for certain jobs."

Crossing the line
Beyond employment, where does body decoration end and pathological self-mutilation begin? Despite her generally positive findings on those who choose tats and pierces, Frederick-Recascino says among people who had first been pierced "at a very early age, 12 or 13, there was some relationship to psychopathology, but it was a minor relationship, found only among those who had multiple pierces."

Face with lips, tongue and nose pierced several times.

It's possible to take anything to an extreme, and even an amateur can spot warning signs in some ramblings written on the web by people who frequent body-mod sites: in the trusting relationship between the writer and the all-knowing "piercer" (who seldom has any medical training), in the sense that piercing can alleviate boredom, or in the feeling of relief that accompanies a successful but fearsome perforation of a new body part.

We asked Pamela Cantor, a lecturer in psychology at The Cambridge (Mass.) Hospital and Harvard Medical School, where she would draw the line between body-modification and self-mutilation. She said some adolescents do piercing as a social event, "the way people in an earlier generation would go to a sleepover and polish nails. They do it as an event, it's not troublesome, not indicative of pathology." (That may be an invitation to infection, however. Stay tuned.)

At a certain point, however, body modification bleeds over into a form of self-mutilation called "cutting," especially when done in solitary fashion, says Cantor, who teaches psychologists about self-destructive behavior. "If it is cutting and not piercing, and if it is done in a solitary rather than social manner, then it represents a totally different psychological picture."

Cutting, she says, "releases natural opiates that soothe... and a person learns to do it again and again."

Cutting is a mark of serious psychological problems. "If a parent sees cutting, it's a warning sign... it can be a sign of psychopathology, a need for help, therapy, perhaps medication. People who use cutting this way are not doing it to be beautiful, not doing it to modify the body, but are doing it to release tension."

A body of esteem
So should parents worry when their precious children decide to get tattooed or pierced? Generally not, says Frederick-Recascino. "But if you see demonstrable changes in behavior, if they start hanging out with different friends, or get more than one pierce, if they have a compulsion, I'd be worried. If they really want it at a fairly young age, I'd be concerned. But if a 20-year-old college student comes home with a tattoo, it probably does not mean much at this point."

Adolescents can use piercing as a social event, the way people once went to a sleepover to polish nails.

Stephen Franzoi says parents have only limited clout with teenagers drawn to body-mod. "Part of the motivation that a teen might have in piercing or tattooing is to distinguish themselves from the parents, so a lot of complaining or negativity by the parents ... might reinforce the desire to do it."

Concerned parents, he suggests, can try to "open a dialog with their children, about short- and long-term consequences. If you engage in that kind of conversation, it might result in your daughter or son reconsidering certain types of tattoos and piercing. It might work, or it might not."

Sounds like the guy's got kids!

Can tattooing transmit hepatitis C?

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